Exciting Cliff at Groundhog Mountain

I hadn’t expected any excitement when Sabine and I headed up to Groundhog Mountain yesterday (October 1). Earlier in the week, I had hurt my foot (no, not while bushwhacking over logs or climbing up a talus slope—I stepped wrong on my carpeted stairs!). I had planned to go to Olallie Mountain, but I was too unsure of my foot to risk hiking seven miles. At Groundhog, I could enjoy a relaxing day of roadside botanizing, and if my foot gave out again, I wouldn’t be too far from the car. I had no real agenda other than enjoying the sunshine (the fog didn’t lift until late afternoon at home) and spending a few more days in the mountains before winter.

Out in the sun, these creeping snowberries (Symphoricarpos mollis) have far more berries than usual. The view west is terrific, with a little fog visible in the Valley.

We headed straight for Waterdog Lake. Today is the first day of gun hunting season, and there were already several hunters camping by the lake. They turned out to be very friendly and came over to see what we were doing on our hands and knees on the ground. I thought this might pique their curiosity. We were looking for the remnants of the tiny Botrychium simplex that Molly Juillerat and I had found back in August (see Awesome Day at Groundhog). There were only a few withering yellow leaves left. In contrast, the much larger Botrychium multifidum, a few hundred feet to the north, were sporing and had large, handsome green leaves. Dozens of little Boreal toads were hopping around throughout the area, still dispersing from the massive congregation in the lake in August.

A skipper and a pine white enjoy lunch at Columbiadoria café.

We continued on down Road 451 to do some further exploration where the road wraps around the west side of the mountain. First, we took a short walk along the rocky part of the south-facing side where a long strip of blooming Columbiadoria hallii was attracting lots of butterflies. Most were pine whites, but there were several fritillaries, some skippers, and a couple of various coppers and blues. We drove farther along the road and parked where a large log had fallen, partly blocking the road. We could have driven farther, but there were many small rocks on the road, and this is about where the roadside flowers start picking up again. Over the course of the day, we saw more butterflies along this stretch, although they weren’t quite as abundant. There were several clodius parnassians, orange sulphurs, an acmon blue, one each Edith’s copper, mariposa copper, and what was probably a lilac-bordered copper. I also tried in vain to get a good photograph of a West Coast lady. That was the first one I’d seen all year. It doesn’t seem to have been a good year around here for any of the ladies. Some of the butterflies were getting hard to identify in their tattered, late summer condition (they might say that about me as well, with all the scrapes and bruises I’ve accumulated).

Does anyone recognize this rockcress (Boechera sp.)?

We walked a bit over a mile up this road. Most of the flowers had gone over, but there were still lots of the ubiquitous pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) and late-blooming annuals including Gayophytum diffusum, Epilobium brachycarpum, and Polygonum minimum. I was looking for Arnica parryi I’d seen here before and finally found a few still in bloom. Other plants including Castilleja miniata, Agoseris grandiflora, Nothochelone nemorosa, and Chamerion angustifolium (fireweed), still had a few blossoms left. We saw one wallflower that was reblooming, with dried seeds on top and more buds and flowers developing near the base of the flowering stalk. There were numerous plants of some sort of rockcress (Boechera sp., formerly Arabis) with conspicuous, somewhat upright siliques and lavender flowers. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this one before, but I still can’t put a name on it.

The small white flowers of boreal sandwort (Minuartia rubella) open much flatter than those of mountain sandwort (Eremogone capillaris) or pumice sandwort (E. pumicola).

When we reached the north end of the road where it starts to wrap around to the east, we stopped to enjoy the great view of Diamond Peak, the Three Sisters, and even Mt. Jefferson, while we each called home, having finally gotten cell phone reception. I was admiring a north-facing cliff off to the east, wondering how I might access it. It occurred to me that it was completely open in front of us, and there might well be some north-facing rock right here. So I suggested we walk through a short shrubby area to the edge to see what was there. We reached the edge and it was indeed very rocky. Suddenly our laid back day got very exciting. Right away I spotted Castilleja rupicola. I’m always thrilled to find a new site at the southern end of its range. There was also lots of Penstemon rupicola and Saxifraga bronchialis, typical denizens of north-facing cliffs in the Western Cascades. Growing among them were some very small tufts with pale seed capsules. Having just seen these at Iron Mountain on Monday (see Autumn Comes to Iron Mountain), I recognized it as Minuartia rubella, a plant I’ve been looking for but rarely see.

I was plenty excited enough finding such an excellent cliff, especially at Groundhog Mountain, where there are numerous wetlands and roadcuts but very little natural cliff—or so I thought. A few steps farther and I was at the top of a very tall vertical face. This really was quite some cliff. It was way too steep to see below. But there, right in front of me was an even bigger thrill. It was a small mat of shiny leaves with red stems. Douglasia laevigata popped into my head immediately, but that has never been found in Lane County or this far south (see OregonFlora website). Take a deep breath, don’t jump to conclusions, I thought. Thankfully, this plant was reachable, and I was able to get a stem complete with an old seed capsule. Learning to recognize plants in seed is very valuable this time of year. It had a capsule that was split to the base into five sections, with persistent, somewhat ridged sepals. There were several bracts a little below the capsules. The mats of Saxifraga bronchialis were covered with brown, two-parted capsules, while the pale capsules of Minuartia rubella form little toothed cups after the seeds are gone. I looked hard with the binoculars and found about five more plants that appeared to be Douglasia. It will be a lot easier to spot from a distance when the bright pink flowers are out, but that may be difficult as it is such an early bloomer, and the flowers might be done by the time the snow melts off the north-facing stretch of road.

The flowers of Douglasia laevigata grow in small clusters above a set of bracts still evident well after the seeds are gone. Under the microscope, little branched hairs can be seen on the flower stalk.

Sabine headed back to the road to wait while I headed farther downhill along the ridge near the top of the cliff area. Some sections were not so steep, and I was able to get a good look at the front of other sections. I didn’t find any more Douglasia, but there was plenty of Castilleja rupicola and more Minuartia rubella. I went down about five successive tiers, about 200′ altogether. Each one had a slightly different mix of plants. Phyllodoce empetriformis grew in one area. This would be more surprising were it not growing in the wetland less than a mile away. Checking with the binoculars, I could see a little green and brown plant in a crack farther down that immediately struck me as Heuchera merriamii. When I got down there, I was able to touch several small plants that were indeed H. merriamii. They still had ripe seed. Back home under the microscope, I examined the black seeds. They are covered with teeny bumps and look like miniature hedgehogs.

I can’t believe how many wonderful plants were growing on this cliff. I can’t wait to see it earlier next year and to look for more accessible north-facing rock nearby. After rejoining Sabine, we returned to our relaxing walk back along the road to the car, both of us happy with the unexpected change in our trip. You just never know what the day will bring. That, in part, is what has me so addicted to plant exploration.

One Response to “Exciting Cliff at Groundhog Mountain”

  • Kris:

    Hi Tanya, I’m glad to see that you’ve been out in the woods enjoying the sunshine lately, and finding some cool things too.

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